Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Odds and ends

  • Palabra Nueva reports that five of Cuba’s Catholic bishops visited prisons on Christmas and said Mass to prisoners.

  • Mariela Castro, daughter of Raul, says that if there’s a respectful dialogue between President Obama and her father, “all this is going to change.” CubaEncuentro has excerpts of her December 18 interview in Spanish with the Miami radio program La Noche se Mueve.

  • The Cuban phone monopoly ETECSA says that cell phone subscriptions are growing at an “unstoppable” pace, according to reports from ANSA and CubaEncuentro. There are 130,000 new subscribers (since when the reports don’t specify), and 110,000 of the accounts in the name of foreigners have been switched to Cuban nationals’ names. Since April, Cubans have been permitted to have cell phone accounts in their own names, and earlier this month activation fees were cut in half.

  • Cuban singer Pablo Milanes, interviewed in Spain, says he doesn’t “trust in any Cuban leader who is older than 75.” Cuban Colada translated excerpts here and links to the interview in Spanish.

  • A fire damaged the Havana shopping center La Puntilla yesterday; Granma’s story is here and El Nuevo Herald says it’s the third fire in a Cimex corporation property this year.

  • Cuba’s tourism ministry says 2008 was a record year for tourist visits. The Granma article (English) says hotel capacity is nearly four times that of 1990, progress is insufficient in substituting domestic products for imports, and there is “instability in relation to supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables.”

Malecon construction [Updated]

CubaEncuentro has a gallery of photos of the construction of the Malecon when it was extended to the west under Batista. Does anyone know what the building is in the background below, and where it stood? As best I can tell it’s an old convention center near where Paseo meets the Malecon.

[Update: As Ernesto of Penultimos Dias points out in the comments, these photos were placed on Flickr some time ago by another blogger. You can view them here without the watermarks that CubaEncuentro added.]

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Odds and ends

  • Reuters: Cuba says 2009 economic growth will be four percent, and the economy minister sees higher growth in 2010 due to agriculture reforms and other measures. At Encuentro, there’s a skeptical look at Cuba’s recent gdp figures by economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago.

  • Juventud Rebelde interviews a machetero in Las Tunas – a “Cuban multimillionaire” – who estimates that he cut more than four million arrobas of sugar cane in a career that spanned 45 sugar harvests. (One arroba is 25 pounds.)

  • Radios, flashlights, fake invoices, a shell corporation: The U.S. Attorney’s office issued a press release describing how Felipe Sixto stole government money from a USAID grantee, even while he worked at the White House.

Monday, December 22, 2008

New website of Havana archdiocese

All you need to know about the Havana archdiocese – documents, parish bulletins, links, news – is on this new website. (H/t: Cuban Colada)

"Gesture for gesture"

After the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone, visited Cuba in February, he told reporters about a conversation he had with Raul Castro. Castro, at one point, brought up the issue of five Cubans – the “Cuban Five,” or los cinco heroes, as they are called in Cuba – who were arrested in 1998, convicted on espionage and other charges, and are in federal jails today. According to Cardinal Bertone, they discussed the issue “with the eventual possibility of an exchange.” I don’t know of any clarification of this conversation that came from the Cuban side to explain who might be exchanged for the five.

A clarification came last week in Brazil in a press conference Raul Castro held with the Brazilian president. There, Castro was asked about the U.S. embargo, relations with the United States, and Cuban prisoners. The transcript (in Spanish) is in Granma; an English-language news story in Granma contains some quotes from the press conference; AP coverage here.

In the press conference, Raul says that a former president (of the United States, I assume) urged him in a letter to make gestures to improve relations with the future Obama Administration. “I told him that the time of gestures is over in Cuba, that they have to be bilateral gestures, no more unilateral gestures.”

He went on to say that under “absolute equality of conditions,” Cuba is willing to talk with the Obama Administration.

And in response to a question about dissidents in prison: “We’re going to do gesture for gesture; those prisoners you speak about, they want them released; let them tell us tomorrow, we’ll send them there with their families and everything; let them return our five heroes to us, that is a gesture by both sides, and of the supposed political prisoners in Cuba.” (My translations.)

The Bush Administration rejected the idea, as AP notes.

It’s hard to tell precisely what signal Raul was trying to send here, or even if he planned to send a signal had reporters not asked about human rights issues. The point about unilateral gestures and concessions is clear enough, and if you want to be optimistic you can take it as a positive signal that he is willing to engage in reciprocal concessions. On the other hand, if “we’ll send them there” means that dissidents would be released on condition that they and their families leave their country, then in this case he is proposing an idea with which no U.S. Administration would be likely to agree.

Earlier comments on the issue here.

Change we can believe in?

In the AP story on the 50th anniversary cited below, it is mentioned that the billboards facing the U.S. Interests Section were taken down. They had, to put it mildly, anti-Bush messages on them. Was it a hurricane precaution, or a political decision?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Odds and ends

  • The Russian destroyer Admiral Chabanenko entering Havana Bay, December 19, 2008. [AFP photo]

  • Ag Journal: the U.S. farm sector is looking for increased exports to Cuba during an Obama Administration.

  • If you read Spanish, it’s worth absorbing the Brazilian president’s comments at the end of this press conference with Raul Castro. It gives a good indication of Brazil’s view of U.S. Cuba policy, its expectations of the Obama presidency, and of what the Obama Administration can expect to hear from Latin America. Not all the pressure to change Cuba policy will be domestic.

  • More on the 50th anniversary: a long survey from AP correspondent Anita Snow, with lots of street-level perspective.

  • AP: Key dates in the past 50 years of Cuba’s history.

The "A. Lincoln" sugar enterprise

In Havana province.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Here's a look at the "Cuban triangle" as the 50th anniversary of socialism approaches and a new U.S. president prepares to take office, from yours truly, published on Real Clear World.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The new cathedral

If the Russians anchor in Havana bay, they will probably see the cathedral from their ships.

Let's all throw more shoes at Bush...

…and while we’re at it, we'll send a signal to Obama.

You could call it the independence summit. The meeting of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Brazil seems to have been about independence from Washington, and a big way of expressing that independence was opposition to U.S. policy toward Cuba. The Washington Post sums up here.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon suggested creation of a new hemispheric organization to discuss political and economic issues; it would not include the United States and Canada (see AP story). What Canada did to deserve exclusion, I don’t know.

On the Cuba front, there was a joint statement calling on the United States to end the Cuba embargo, and “in particular” to stop applying “the measures adopted over the past five years to deepen the impact” of U.S. sanctions against Cuba. President Calderon and Argentine President Fernandez agreed to visit Cuba next year. And Raul Castro reportedly spent a half hour with the OAS Secretary General.

Spain’s El Pais summed up: “The image of a Cuba that practically has relations only with Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, or Nicaragua, has ended.”

Odds and ends

  • Reuters on the impact of the global financial crisis on Cuba: a cash crunch affecting payments to foreign businesses, and rescheduling of debt payments to foreign governments.

  • Senate Republicans considering the nomination of Eric Holder for Attorney General are searching for documents on his role in the Clinton Administration, then as Deputy Attorney General, in the Elian Gonzalez case.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Thinking of taking a day off?

"We're working...and you?"

"'Man grows with the work that comes from his hands'
--Jose Marti"

Odds and ends

  • Carlos Valenciaga, a Council of State member and chief of staff to Fidel Castro, and the man who made the television announcement of Fidel’s illness and transfer of power in 2006, is rumored to have been removed from his duties. The rumors are very solid in the sense that they are very widespread and everyone seems to believe them. Granma has yet to run one of those terse little notes saying he left his post and is waiting until “se le asigne otras funciones.” At any rate, Penultimos Dias says Mr. Valenciaga is now working in the manuscript department of the National Library. Which would not be far from his old job, as a crow flies, just across the Plaza de la Revolucion.

  • Oil & Gas Journal on the new agreements with Venezuela; the plan is to build a new refinery and expand others, to quadruple Cuba’s refining capacity.

  • Prensa Latina has a writeup and box score of a 3-3 tie between the University of Alabama and a Cuban team of selected university students.

  • For the record, a December 4 item that I missed: a business community letter (pdf) released by USA Engage calling on President-elect Obama to make dramatic changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Too soon to talk baseball?

The 2009 World Baseball Classic will be played March 5-23. The brackets for the four-round tournament are here.

The Cuban team would seem to have an excellent chance to advance from the first round in Mexico City. In the second round, in San Diego, Cuba would face the winner and runner-up in the Asian group, which will likely include Japan. Japan beat Cuba 10-6 to win first place in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.

Speaking of baseball, here’s another reason to read Penultimos Dias: a terrific item from Tania Quintero on Dodgers greats Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese training in Havana. With photos and links.

Near Guira de Melena

Odds and ends

  • Raul Castro is in Brazil for a Latin American/Caribbean summit, where Cuba will formally enter the Rio Group. Reporters asked him on arrival if he is willing to discuss the U.S. embargo with a new U.S. administration. He replied, “If Mr. Obama wants to discuss it, we’ll discuss it. If he doesn't want to discuss it, we won't discuss it.”

  • The prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago needs surgery, and heads to Cuba for the operation.

  • Cuba expects that 2008 will bring a record 2.34 million visitors, AP reports in a story that explains why Cuba is doing better than Caribbean neighbors this year, in spite of quality factors that discourage return visits. And Vice President Carlos Lage (see AFP Spanish) says Cuba is ready for the Americans to come, Cuban Americans or otherwise; “Our tourism sector and our people are prepared,” he said.

Is the big guy back?

In yester- day’s Herald, Wilfredo Cancio looks at indic- ations over the past few months that Fidel Castro has resumed a more active role in governing, and he cites sources in government, both here and there. The article is in El Nuevo Herald too.

Politically, it would not be surprising if this were so. And legally, Fidel’s role is clear as can be. He retains his post as Communist Party chief, and the party is the “highest leading force of society and of the state” in Cuba’s constitution. Which may be why, in Caracas, Raul Castro referred to his brother as the “the leader [jefe] of the revolution,” even though he, Raul, is president.

Guira de Melena

Monday, December 15, 2008

Odds and ends

  • The Miami Herald begins a very in-depth series on the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban revolution with an informative, even-handed examination of gains and losses by Frances Robles. The series is previewed here; further installments will be on the Herald’s Cuba page.

  • One hundred opposition members were detained in Cuba last week around the celebration of Human Rights Day, rights monitor Elizardo Sanchez reports. Speaking of the opposition, Tracey Eaton asks all the right questions – ten of them – on his blog. I’m too lazy to give them full essay-test treatment, but it does seem to me that there has been a shift in tactics from arrests/trials/long-term sentences to short-term detentions. As to whether a “peaceful, bloodless resolution to the U.S.-Cuba conflict” is possible, I say “peaceful” is highly likely into the distant future, while “resolution” probably is not.

  • Cuban cell phone activation charges were cut nearly in half to about $65, AP reports. Now can we remember what our economics professors said about “elasticity of demand?”

  • A horrible story in the Herald: a Hialeah company allegedly engaged in pure fraud by taking money to forward as family remittances to Cuba, and then simply keeping it.

Nuevo Vedado

Raul in Caracas

Cuba and Venezuela signed three memorandums of understanding during President Raul Castro’s visit last weekend, according to Granma, to “strengthen bilateral integration in economic, social, and technological matters.”

Energy, education, information technology, and agriculture are among the areas covered. The New York Times account focuses on energy, including oil refining and construction of a plant in Cuba to allow importation of liquid natural gas.

Obama and Cuba

Cuba Europe Dialogues, a monthly published in Prague, asked me to look at Cuba policy prospects under the Obama Administration, so here it is, in English (pdf) and in Spanish (pdf).

Speaking of TV Marti...

…I have two questions:

1. Has there ever been another television station where, 18 years after its creation, there is a debate about whether it has an audience or not?

2. If TV Marti went off the air, where would the most people notice – in Washington, Miami-Dade, or Cuba?

Confidence builder

"The people of Pinar del Rio always recover, they never fail."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Food rebound

Cuba’s food situation is by no means back to normal after the devastation of three hurricanes this year. See, for example, this dire report from Holguin.

But I heard a few weeks ago that produce was starting to appear in Havana’s farmers markets, and last week the following items were on sale in two Havana markets I visited: pork, garlic, onions, chives, tomatoes, lettuce, several varieties of cabbage, bean sprouts, watercress, cucumbers, green beans, peppers, carrots, squash, okra, eggplant, radishes, beets, ginger, parsley, basil, cilantro, black beans, red beans, malanga, yuca, corn, peanuts, corn flour, corn meal, oranges, limes, pineapples, coconuts, grapefruit, guayaba, anon, and starfruit.

Plus lots of flowers.

There’s a list of items, posted in the markets, whose prices are capped at pre-hurricane levels. I only saw a sharp price increase in one item I note regularly; pork chops were going for 35 pesos per pound, about 40 percent higher than usual. On the other hand, maybe the vendor thought I would be willing to pay 35.

Obama watch

The Obama Cuba policy is going to take time to define.

Obviously, the foundation will be the President-elect’s campaign statements (see here). Then there will be personnel decisions, the decisions on how to implement campaign promises, and the first-year decisions on all the moving parts of the policy, e.g. will the Obama Administration fund TV Marti?

But in the meantime, let’s take note of any straws in the wind. And if I miss some, send them in.

  • From the Times magazine piece discussed below, advisor Anthony Lake: “With the new Democratic majority in Congress, and some clear Cuban gestures on human rights, you could get changes to Helms-Burton.”

  • Here’s former congressional candidate and Miami-Dade Democratic chairman Joe Garcia speaking about the timing of travel and diplomatic initiatives, in El Nuevo Herald: “Obama has a good group of advisors and he is going to listen to them. The right to travel and remittances will be restored, but only remotely will there be an immediate opportunity to converse with Havana.”

  • And the Brazilian defense minister, recently in Washington, called for the end of the U.S. embargo as he made the rounds. According to this report in CubaEncuentro, Secretary Gates “did not say yes or no,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Cuba should “take the first step,” and there’s no report on the response from Obama’s soon-to-be national security advisor. The minister said to Gates, “After all these years of the embargo on Cuba, what have you got? Just two things: a poor country and a very proud people.”


In Parque Central.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Odds and ends

  • At its summit last Monday, Caricom called for the United States to end its “economic, commercial and financial embargo against the Republic of Cuba.” Reuters report here.

  • Via Bloomberg, an Italian newspaper reports that Telefonica de Espana is in talks to buy the share of the Cuban phone monopoly Etecsa that is now owed by Telecom Italia.

  • The committee seeking a presidential pardon for Eduardo Arocena says it is not surprised that Arocena was not included in the pardons and commutations issued by President Bush last month. “We know,” it says in a statement on its website, that “this gift to the Cuban community, and especially to his family, we will receive it this Christmas.” Arocena was convicted in 1984 for murder of a Cuban diplomat and other charges; the judge who denied his appeal describes Arocena’s actions in this decision.

Human Rights Day in Havana

According to press reports from Havana, the Damas de Blanco walked through a Havana neighborhood and distributed copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights before climbing the steps of the Capitolio building and calling aloud for freedom.

More than 50 dissidents were detained Tuesday and Wednesday, according to Elizardo Sanchez, who said that many were detained in the provinces as they prepared to come to Havana.

Sanchez denounced the “pure, hard repression” that is the government’s “sui generis way” of celebrating Human Rights Day. Cuban foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque said Cuba celebrates the day with its “head held high.”

The Christian Science Monitor reported on an activist, Belinda Salas, who said she and three others were beaten by police on Tuesday after leaving the U.S. diplomatic mission, and the three others were arrested.

Coverage in English from EFE and The Miami Herald, and in Spanish from Reuters and Spain’s ABC.

[Reuters photo.]

The Times' man in Havana

“Lealtad beckoned me,” Roger Cohen of The New York Times wrote in a long, first-person magazine piece last Sunday on the approaching 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.

“What I saw,” he said, “struck me with the force of a vision.” On Lealtad, the street in Centro Habana, the Times’ veteran, Paris-based reporter found a bar. Inside, people were drinking. And there were “harsh fluorescent lights” and a “white man with a bulbous red nose pickled by drink.” There was a black man and a black woman – stay with me, please – who also seemed to be drinking, and they were all “at a distance from one another.” Then before you know it, Cohen is pondering existential despair, and finds himself in an Edward Hopper painting.

I guess you had to be there. Regardless, Cohen then sums up: “The feeling of being transported is very Cuban.”

Roger, if you don’t mind my asking, what were you drinking that day?

Ok, more seriously, if you don’t mind the writer’s flair for the dramatic (the Malecon is “haunting”), and the snooty (during an interview in Miami, “inevitably, we ate at the kitschy Versailles Restaurant”), it’s an interesting article. I liked Cohen’s account of his exchange with an economy ministry official, and his account of the owner of a little private restaurant who takes out a camera, turns it to video mode, and gets Cohen to say that the food is good and he works for The New York Times.

On the Malecon, Cohen observed “over subsequent days that Cubans perched on the seafront wall rarely looked outward.” I always thought that was because people prefer watching the passing parade on the sidewalk and street, but there’s an existential meaning to it, and you have to read the article to find out.

But what really prompted me to write was to ask readers’ help with this inscrutable closing paragraph:

“Yes, Fidel’s communist revolution, at 50, has carried a terrible price for his people, dividing the Cuban nation, imprisoning part of it and bringing economic catastrophe. But as I gazed from Cuban hills at Guantánamo, and considered Obama’s incoming administration, I thought the wages of guilt might just have found a fine enough balance for good sense at last to prevail.”

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

“The State Department tends to be less reasonable than the Pentagon”

That’s a perceptive Raul Castro, in an October interview he gave to, of all people, Sean Penn, where he spoke more expansively about relations with the United States than he has anywhere else.
Wilfredo Cancio of El Nuevo Herald discovered the interview, Penn’s account of which was published this week in The Nation magazine, and wrote about it here.
Penn’s article is here. He reports that the interview lasted seven hours.
Raul jokes about Cuba’s unprepared army during the Bay of Pigs invasion. He refers to the famous picture of Fidel Castro in front of a Russian tank, and says, “We did not yet know even how to put those tanks in reverse. So retreat was no option!”
Raul also speaks in more detail than I have seen anywhere else about the monthly talks between Cuban and American military officers at the Guantanamo naval base. The two militaries conduct joint emergency response exercises, he says, citing firefighting as an example.
Raul also said he would be willing to meet President Obama, and said a first meeting should be “in a neutral place.”

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Feds charge Felipe Sixto

The Justice Department has charged ex-White House aide Felipe Sixto with theft of federal funds, according to an “Information” (document here, pdf) filed by prosecutors in U.S. District Court. The “Information” contains little information except that his spree lasted about three years, during which Sixto “embezzled, stole, obtained by fraud, and intentionally misapplied property” while working at the Center for a Free Cuba.

Yesterday’s GAO report (see below) noted that Sixto made money by ordering radios at inflated prices from “companies that he controlled,” then “pocketing the difference.”

I looked up the statute he violated, and it appears he could face a fine, jail time up to ten years, or both.

AP coverage here. My post from last March here.

Presumably, this sad chapter will end with announcement of a plea agreement.

Monday, November 24, 2008

New GAO report on USAID program

The Government Accountability Office has issued another report on USAID’s Cuba democracy programs, finding that while financial controls have improved, the agency’s “ability to ensure the appropriate use of grant funds remains in question.”

The report sheds light on the case of Felipe Sixto, the White House employee who had worked at a USAID grantee, the Center for a Free Cuba. Last March, amid reports that Sixto had defrauded the program of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the White House commented that Sixto “allegedly had a conflict of interest with the use of USAID funds.”

Today’s report (here, pdf) explains: “According to a USAID memorandum, from late 2004 through January 2008, [Sixto] used companies that he controlled to sell shortwave radios to CFC at inflated prices, pocketing the difference.” The report says that USAID has recovered “$578,810 in project funds and interest of $67,992, which will be returned to the Department of the Treasury.” The report does not specify if all of Sixto’s apparent kickbacks derived from radio purchases, or if other kinds of transactions were involved.

AP coverage here.

Brookings report: end travel ban, terrorist designation

A “Partnership for the Americas Commission” convened by the Brookings Institution has issued a report on U.S. relations with Latin America, with a separate chapter on Cuba. Recommendations include ending travel restrictions and ending Cuba’s designation as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” Former UN Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo were the co-chairs; half the members are from the United States, half from the region.

The report’s summary contains the full list of recommendations and a link to the whole document, with full discussion in the Cuba chapter. New York Times coverage is here.

Speaking of commissions and recommendations as a new U.S. Administration prepares to take office, a new essay by Carlos Alberto Montaner calls for establishment of an advisory council on Cuba for the Obama Administration. Specfically, the council would advise the Obama Administration appointee (if indeed there is one, which come to think of it will be interesting to watch) as Cuba Transition Coordinator, following the departure of President Bush’s appointee to that post, Caleb McCarry. Montaner calls for bipartisan membership that would consist of the six Cuban Americans who serve in the United States Congress. They are the ideal members, he says, because they are well informed, know the Cuban American community, and would make excellent advisors. Plus, he might have added, they can be trusted.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Condi Rice, off the reservation?

Castro biographer Georgie Anne Geyer – no fan of Castro, and if you read her column, no fan of Bush either – argues that a “change in Cuban policy by the new administration would signal a huge change in American attitudes toward the entire world.”

Geyer might have got her wish, under the Bush Administration, according to Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland. He reports that Secretary of State Rice considered upgrading relations with Havana. Hoagland’s wording is imprecise about timing and conditions, but it sounds as if the idea was to normalize relations, turn the Interests Section into an Embassy, and send a U.S. ambassador – but her idea was shot down in the White House.

Comments, please

Juventud Rebelde is gathering material for its 50th anniversary coverage, and posts a question for readers who are “Cuban and have lived on this island part of your existence in the Cuban Revolution,” and asks for responses by e-mail.

The question: “Qué dejó sembrado en ti la Revolución Cubana?” or, as best I can translate it, “What has the Cuban Revolution instilled in you?”

Odds and ends

  • Rui Ferreira reports on the efforts of Pedro Roig, President Bush’s Radio/TV Marti director, to find a way to stay in his job, “the greatest source of Republican employment in south Florida,” during the Obama Administration. Three times, Rui reports, the White House told him to forget it. And let’s thank Rui for continuing his exclusive coverage of the constitutional government of Cuba in exile, this time with a communiqué from the information minister and a photo of President Rodolfo Nodal, on the occasion of Nodal’s birthday. Happy birthday, Mr. President!

  • Bolivian President Evo Morales looks ahead to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution next month in Havana, and he wants his cabinet to come along.

  • The “Obama effect:” El Pais reports that the U.S. election result has provoked new discussion of racism in Cuba.

  • CubaEncuentro: A conversation with a guy who put on an ETECSA uniform every day, went to the phone company office in Camaguey, and did nothing but record phone conversations of dissidents, journalists, state enterprise managers, and party and government officials.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

China delivers new aid, credit, debt relief

It was a “fraternal meeting” between Chinese premier Hu Jintao and Fidel Castro, according to Granma. “Your thoughts and experience will surely guide the Cuban people to continue their march on the road of socialist construction,” Hu was quoted as saying to Fidel, according to Reuters.

In addition to cooperation agreements already signed, the visit brought concrete benefits: an $8 million donation of aid, a $70 million credit for hospital repair and reconstruction, an agreement for a five-year deferment of payment for credits extended in 1998, and an agreement to defer until 2018 payment for trade credits extended in 1994-1995.

[Granma photo.]

How to create a black market

Neither would be flattered to be in each other’s company, but the presidents of Cuba and the United States have something in common: an ability to create black markets in activities that are innocuous and beneficial, and should be legal.

In the case of President Bush, his 2004 regulations that tightened limits on the contents of gift parcels sent to Cuba have created a black market in package delivery services, since only food, medicine, medical supplies and equipment, receive-only radios, and batteries for radios – and now cell phones – are allowed to be sent from Cuban Americans to their relatives in Cuba, only once per month, and with a $400 limit on the content’s value. Apart from the black-market package delivery services, there are black-market remittance carriers, and there’s the flow of Cuban Americans who evade U.S. controls by traveling through third countries to visit loved ones.

As the Herald reports, the companies that have U.S. Treasury Department licenses to send packages legally to Cuba are under pressure, and business is suffering; “On every corner there’s a pirate company,” says the operator of one of those businesses.

Competition from the U.S. Postal Service is also hurting the licensed private companies, and one implies that the post office gains a competitive advantage because it doesn’t check contents of packages, with the result that “many people are taking advantage of the situation and are sending clothes.” (Clothes are not on the list of items the U.S. government permits in gift parcels.)

My impression is that for Cuban Americans, restrictions on travel and remittances are more important than the gift parcel regulations. As candidate, Senator Obama promised to end travel and remittance restrictions, and was silent on the gift parcel issue, but an easing of those regulations would fit with the desire he has expressed to allow Cuban Americans to help their relatives on the island and decrease their dependence on their government.


One of the remaining fragments of the colonial-era wall that enclosed the city of Havana; this one is in front of the Museum of the Revolution, formerly the presidential palace.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fidel on Obama: Let's wait and see

A cryptic Fidel Castro addressed the Obama election in one of his newspaper commentaries. In the midst of a discussion of the financial crisis and the just-concluded Washington summit, he makes this digression:

Many seem to dream that after a simple change of leadership in the empire, this would be more tolerant and less hostile. Apparently, contempt for the incumbent ruler makes some entertain illusions about a probable change in the system.

The innermost ideas of the citizen who will take over the issue are yet unknown. It would be extremely naïve to believe that the good will of a smart person could change what is the result of centuries of selfishness and vested interests.

This, I think, is in keeping with Cuban foreign policy in recent years, which has kept an eye on the United States as always, but has concentrated its diplomatic work elsewhere. I also think it means that if the relationship is to change, the first move will be Washington’s, or it will be in private.

Fidel’s commentary is here in English and here in Spanish. The excerpt above is from Granma’s translation.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Odds and ends

  • Fidel Castro could return to office if he wished, says the Spanish doctor who treated him in 2006. The EFE report doesn’t say whether the doctor has seen Castro recently.

  • On the way home from the economic summit in Washington, China’s president makes a two-day visit to Havana; Reuters report here. [Update: AP reports on the agreements being signed in this visit.]


More on Cuban Americans and the election

The Weekly Standard reports on the Republican party’s problem with Latino voters. In Florida, it seems that the GOP advantage among Cuban Americans is of diminishing value, as Cuban Americans account for a steadily diminishing share of the state’s Latino vote. The full article (“Hispanic Panic”) is here; an excerpt:

According to the exit polls, Bush won Florida Hispanics by 12 percentage points (56-44) in 2004, while John McCain lost Florida Hispanics by 15 percentage points (57-42) in 2008. In other words, between 2004 and 2008, the Hispanic presidential vote in Florida swung by 27 percentage points.

What explains that? Among other things, a decline in the relative strength of the Cuban vote, which remains heavily Republican. An increasingly large share of Florida's Hispanic population is made up of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Colombians, -Venezuelans, Argentines, and other non-Cubans. Indeed, according to Bendixen & Associates, non-Cubans now account for a majority of Latino voters in the Sunshine State. (Just 20 years ago, says Amandi, Cubans represented around 90 percent of Florida's Hispanic voters.) It appears that Obama also did noticeably better among Florida Cubans than John Kerry did four years ago, thanks to the younger generation of Cuban Americans, though McCain still received a huge majority of the Cuban vote.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Odds and ends

  • The President of Brazil, visiting Rome and meeting the Pope, called again on the United States to end its Cuba embargo. He spoke to President-elect Obama last Tuesday, according to EFE, but it’s not clear whether he discussed Cuba with him directly on the phone.

  • CubaNews has an article (here, pdf) in its November issue on Cuba’s announcement that doubled its previous estimate of offshore oil reserves, and it includes an oil industry perspective that is skeptical of the new estimate. My thanks to CubaNews for permission to reproduce the article.

  • Cuba named Rodrigo Malmierca, former vice minister for foreign investment, as the new foreign investment minister. He is Cuba’s UN ambassador and son of the late Isidoro Malmierca, Cuba’s foreign minister from 1976 to 1992. The Council of State’s brief notice is here; information on the new minister is here.

  • Did you know that there is a Cuban government in exile, established under the 1940 constitution? With a full cabinet, viceministers, secret service, and a representative in the Dominican Republic? I didn’t either, but Rui Ferreira gets the press releases and he posted this government’s latest statement. The message: an Obama Administration is within its rights to negotiate with Cuba’s current government, but this group reserves the right not to recognize any agreement that may result.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"A new stage in the ideological combat"

Cuban official reaction to the American election has been sparse, from what I have seen.

Before the election, Fidel Castro wrote one of his reflections in which he said he was being careful not to make an endorsement, although he did allow that Senator Obama, in his view, is “without doubt more intelligent, cultured, and level-headed than his Republican adversary.”

Vice President Machado Ventura answered reporters’ questions about the American election last Sunday as he toured areas damaged by Paloma. The Obama election, he said, would be “interesting if it really demonstrates that there is change.” Regarding possible diplomatic contacts, he reiterated that Cuba “is willing to talk without conditions, on the basis of equality, we cannot accept negotiating anything with conditions…Raul has already said this three times, we’ll see if he says it a fourth time…”

Cuban media coverage has been sparse, too. The day after the election, according to El Pais, the U.S. election result was the third item on television and Radio Rebelde newscasts (in the latter case, the Obama story followed items on the 50th anniversary of a revolutionary event and unrest in Spain).

So far, without a doubt, the prize for the most interesting reaction goes to former government minister Armando Hart.

His essay in Granma, written just before the election, uses Lenin’s “What is to be done?” essay as a touchstone, and it gets real academic real fast. But before Hart takes that plunge, he discusses one aspect of the promised Obama Cuba policy – more Cuban American travel – and declares it a problem.

If [Obama] keeps his promise [regarding travel], a new stage in the ideological combat between the Cuban Revolution and imperialism will be born…to achieve the ideological vulnerability to which we aspire, it will be necessary to design a new theoretical and propagandistic conception regarding our ideas and their origin.

Among those who travel, there would be:

…“Cubans” who are against the Revolution or who simply left Cuba for other reasons and whom we cannot characterize that way. Add to this…Americans who seek to develop relations of some kind with our country. That is, we have before us the immense challenge of confronting a new time in the cultural struggle against the enemy.

Maybe he should have thanked President Bush for limiting travel, and keeping the need for “ideological combat” to a minimum.

Nuevo Vedado

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Cuban Americans and the election

The most salient fact about last week’s election and the Cuba issue may be that Senator Obama won Florida without engaging in a bidding war about who would have the most hard-line policy toward Cuba. Indeed, ever since the primary election he made a conscious play to the part of the Cuban American community that dislikes U.S. regulations that limit family visits to Cuba.

Data from exit polls show that Senator McCain won a clear majority of Cuban Americans. At Babalu, they are doing a zip code-by-zip code demonstration of McCain’s majority in Cuban American areas of Miami-Dade. The exit polls themselves, cited in this Herald article, show that Obama won 35 percent of Cuban Americans:

According to Bendixen’s exit polls, Obama won 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Miami-Dade County, nearly 10 points higher than Kerry’s showing in 2004. Within that community, the generational difference was stark. For example, 84 percent of Miami-Dade Cuban-American voters 65 or older backed McCain, while 55 percent of those 29 or younger backed Obama.

Then there’s this from a LA Times story on the Obama victory and the Latino vote:

There were signs that a strong finish Tuesday by Obama did not necessarily help other Democrats down the ballot -- suggesting that this new ethnic coalition could have more to do with Obama himself than an overall shift toward Democrats.

Obama, for example, scored a dramatic win in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, beating McCain by 140,000 votes after an aggressive campaign to register minorities and get them to the polls.

But the GOP’s three Cuban American members of Congress in Miami-Dade all won reelection, beating well-financed Democrats who had hoped to ride Obama’s coattails. Two of those Democratic campaigns had even coordinated with Obama’s team on the ground.

Odds and ends

  • A new Fidel Castro photo from October, via the Russian Orthodox Church, in El Nuevo Herald.

  • Raul Castro toured areas affected by Paloma and spoke to evacuees, Granma reports. And there’s more from the Sun-Sentinel’s Ray Sanchez in Santa Cruz del Sur.

Monday, November 10, 2008

After Paloma

Category 4 Hurricane Paloma hit hard the southern coast of Las Tunas province, but soon fell apart and departed Cuba’s north coast as a tropical depression.

Sun Sentinel correspondent Ray Sanchez reported on the devastation in Santa Cruz del Sur, and his article includes AP video. (And Along the Malecon posted MSNBC videos.) AP reports that infrastructure damage was not as severe as that caused by Ike or Gustav.

Fidel Castro weighed in with one of his reflections as Paloma approached, declaring that if Washington were to make a new offer of aid, it “will be rejected.” Washington, “now more than ever,” should end its embargo, he argued.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Obama on Cuba

As everyone wonders what an Obama Administration will do in Cuba policy, I thought it would be useful to assemble some statements that he and the Democratic Party made before the election. Full versions of these documents are here.

From the 2008 Democratic Party Platform:

“And we must build ties to the people of Cuba and help advance their liberty by allowing unlimited family visits and remittances to the island, while presenting the Cuban regime with a clear choice: if it takes significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the unconditional release of all political prisoners, we will be prepared to take steps to begin normalizing relations.”

From a May 2008 Obama speech in Miami:

Throughout my entire life, there has been injustice in Cuba. Never, in my lifetime, have the people of Cuba known freedom. Never, in the lives of two generations of Cubans, have the people of Cuba known democracy. […]

My policy toward Cuba will be guided by one word: Libertad. And the road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba’s political prisoners, the rights of free speech, a free press and freedom of assembly; and it must lead to elections that are free and fair.

Now let me be clear. John McCain’s been going around the country talking about how much I want to meet with Raul Castro, as if I’m looking for a social gathering. That’s never what I’ve said, and John McCain knows it. After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions. There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda. And as President, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people. […]

It’s time for more than tough talk that never yields results. It’s time for a new strategy. There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans. That’s why I will immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island. It’s time to let Cuban Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers. It’s time to let Cuban American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime.

I will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations.

From an Obama op-ed, Miami Herald, 8/21/07:

The United States has a critical interest in seeing Cuba join the roster of stable and economically vibrant democracies in the Western Hemisphere. Such a development would bring us important security and economic benefits, and it would allow for new cooperation on migration, counter-narcotics and other issues. […]

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has made grand gestures to that end while strategically blundering when it comes to actually advancing the cause of freedom and democracy in Cuba. This is particularly true of the administration's decision to restrict the ability of Cuban Americans to visit and send money to their relatives in Cuba. This is both a humanitarian and a strategic issue. That decision has not only had a profoundly negative impact on the welfare of the Cuban people. It has also made them more dependent on the Castro regime and isolated them from the transformative message carried there by Cuban Americans.

In the ''Cuban spring'' of the late 1990s and early years of this decade, dissidents and human-rights activists had more political space than at any time since the beginning of Castro's rule, and Cuban society experienced a small opening in advancing the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.

U.S. policies -- especially the fact that Cuban Americans were allowed to maintain and deepen ties with family on the island -- were a key cause of that ''Cuban spring.'' […]

Cuban-American connections to family in Cuba are not only a basic right in humanitarian terms, but also our best tool for helping to foster the beginnings of grass-roots democracy on the island. Accordingly, I will grant Cuban Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island.